Composer  Carter  Pann

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



During my career, I have done approximately 1600 interviews.  Virtually all of my guests were mature artists, and it is safe to say that none were children nor adolescents.  Carter Pann was born February 21, 1972 in La Grange, Illinois, a suburb thirteen miles west of downtown Chicago.  We met in mid-July of 2000, and while not having checked all of the dates, at twenty-eight years he is among the youngest.  As our chat is being edited for posting, almost twenty years have passed, and his promise is being fulfilled and noticed.  Performances and recordings have taken place, and, as noted above, in 2016 a piece of his was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.

I asked about his name, and he said his grandfather had shortened it from a longer Greek name when he came to the U.S.

Bruce Duffie:   You’re originally from the Chicago area, and then you left for your studies?

Carter Pann:   Yes.  I did a Bachelor’s degree in composition at Eastman in Rochester, New York, and then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan specifically to study with Bill Bolcom.  I did a two-year Master’s degree there.  [Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]


BD:   You’re now teaching there?

pann Pann:   No, I was teaching while I was in school.  I broke into the Doctoral degree program there at Michigan, and got almost a year into it, and pulled out of it to do this recording of orchestral pieces.  A lot of it also had to do with William Albright, who became a great influence to me as a student.  He was at Michigan, and he passed away in September of ’97.  I also had been in School for so long that I just had to get out.  It was time for me to start writing full-time, and I was very aware that it could possibly only last for a certain period of time.  Writing orchestral music is not the most lucrative thing in the world.  In fact, it’s at the opposite end.

BD:   You are going to go broke, that’s a given.

Pann:   You will go broke, it’s finite.  You know that it’s going to happen.  So I have been scraping along, as they say, but it’s very worth it.  I hope to be able to write music full time as long as I can.  I am thinking about going back to school, though to get the Doctorate.  It’s a valuable degree, and helps to keep your options open.

BD:   You have to have it...

Pann:   ...especially for a musician.  Not so much for a performer.  There you can get a Performance degree.  If you’re a Yehudi Menuhin-type prodigy, you can pretty much write your own ticket.

BD:   He started playing with Elgar when he was in short pants, but that’s beside the point.

Pann:   Yes.  [Both laugh]  I won’t wear those...

BD:   ...but you are also a performer?

Pann:   Yes.  I play piano, and have since I was a young kid.  I studied with my grandmother.  She was big, big influence for me when I was really young.  I would meet with her regularly.  She was a cocktail pianist, but I was very young, and she could teach me the rudiments.

BD:   When you’re composing, do you find it easier or harder to write for the piano?

Pann:   It’s a good question, and I’ve actually just come up against that recently.  I wrote a set of six pieces which are very sophisticated for me.  I’ve written a lot of rags and ragtime, but these pieces used a technique that not any old pianist could sit down and play.  I, sure as heck, cannot play these pieces.  They’re too difficult.

BD:   So you’re writing beyond yourself?

Pann:   Yes, I was writing beyond myself.  It’s a very easy thing to do.

BD:   Are you writing beyond anybody?

Pann:   No, they’ve been performed.  They were written for a kid in his early twenties, named Winston Choi.  He’s in Bloomington at Indiana University, who is just amazing.  He’s got the kind of brain which is almost photographic, and his fingers just rip through the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto.  That’s one of the grandest pieces there is.  My pieces were written for him, so I knew that I had the license to just shoot the moon, and write beyond my own capabilities.

choi As a dedicated champion of contemporary music, Winston Choi has premiered and commissioned over 100 works by young composers as well as established masters. He is a core member of the new music ensemble Brave New Works, and the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente. Already a prolific recording artist, Choi’s debut CD, the complete piano works of Elliott Carter (l’Empreinte Digitale in France) was given 5 stars by BBC Music Magazine. He has also recorded 2 CDs of the piano music of Jacques Lenot for the Intrada label, having won the Grand Prix du Disque from l’Académie Charles Cros for Volume I. Other labels he can be heard on include Albany, Arktos, Crystal Records, Naxos and QuadroFrame. After initial studies in Toronto with James Tweedie and Vivienne Bailey, his BM and MM studies were at Indiana University with Menahem Pressler, and his DM was completed at Northwestern University with Ursula Oppens. Previously on the faculties of Bowling Green State University and the Oberlin Conservatory, Choi is Associate Professor and Head of Piano at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

[From the Roosevelt University website.]  

BD:   Did that give you the idea to write something difficult, or was it a burden to be sure that you would write so that he would be interested in it?

Pann:   No, I wasn’t so interested in rising to his technical sophistication as much as I wanted to make the set of six pieces a good piece of music from front to back.  Writing beyond my technical abilities was actually a freedom.  It was a freeing experience to be able to write for this kid.  He’s a wonderful pianist, and is definitely going places [as seen in the box above].  But writing for the piano as a pianist is not just a ready-made natural process, because it’s like writing for anything else.  It’s like writing for the violin.  I don’t know how to play the violin.  I know somewhat how the violin works, but you’re up against the same parameters.

pann BD:   Did you stick one under your chin to make sure you can feel it a little bit?

Pann:   [Laughs]  No, but I do have graphs.  I also have friends who are string players.  One in particular is a violinist/violist so she can help me out.  That’s how I would do it.

BD:   So, you check with her to make sure things are playable, or at least reasonable?

Pann:   Yes.  You want to know that you’re writing something with a certain level of comfort.  This is interesting.  The last thing I want to do is write a piece of music that the players dislike playing.  They may dislike the piece, but if it’s a chore to play it will not be such a rewarding experience.  They’ve often had to play so many new pieces by either students or older composers, and it’s a jungle to get through.  However, if it is a very great piece of music, by the end you feel like you’ve actually earned it, and that’s a wonderful thing.

BD:   Do you try to write this into each piece, or do you hope that it just comes?

Pann:   I do.  I take a step back and make sure that the piece, or the place that I’m at right now has some degree of performer-friendliness to it.  You can get to the point where there’s too much, and you’re dumbing it down, or it just becomes a simple easy piece.  Something titled Five Easy Pieces is fine, but it’s a give and take.  You don’t want to concern yourself so much with that.

BD:   What about the musical values?  Do you write those into it, or do you wait and hope that they’re there when you’ve put the last note on the page?

Pann:   [Thinks a moment]  All of that comes during the composing.  It’s interesting, and I know a lot of people who make a lot of sketches, preparing themselves to write a certain piece of music.  All these preparations are just messy pencil sketches, as you can imagine, and then they go to copy, or orchestrate it.  But when I’m writing orchestra music particularly, it’s very much a situation where I jump into it with an idea that I have for the way I see something sounding.  It’s almost visual, the way I see people moving on stage.  Performers move a lot.  People think that an orchestra just sits there, but they don’t.  A lot of it is a visual thing.  You picture people playing certain things, and I get a big wash of sound, or an idea for a motivic idea, and actually plunge in.  I can’t remember any time I’ve ever made many preliminary sketches for a piece.  It becomes a very improvisatory process.

BD:   Are your preliminary sketches in your head?

Pann:   Yes.  Oh, they’re there.  Once you’re into a piece, they really start to amass, and then the ball starts to roll.  It’s much easier to compose while you’re in the middle of the piece than where you’re staring at a piece of blank paper.

BD:   Are you guiding that ball down the hill, or are you running away from it, and it is chasing you?

Pann:   [Laughs]  Oh, that’s funny!  No, actually I’m kicking the ball uphill, and it stays where it stops.  At a certain point, the ball starts to really roll downhill, and it’s funny that this works as an analogy.

BD:   It takes on a life of its own?

Pann:   Yes, it does.  You do have to actually start to impose certain parameters on it all, otherwise, like in some of my pieces, they go off track.  This is a very liberating experience.  I think to myself,
Let me just put this in here... let me do this... here I can modulate.  It’s funny, but I do think that way, that a modulation sounds like keys.  I write keys into all my music now.  It’s just the way it’s become, and you decide as you’re writing it how much cohesiveness you’re going to give it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You say you write in keys now.  You didn’t before?

Pann:   I didn’t when I was a younger student, and before.  I studied with a local man in town here, Howard Sandroff, when I was in high school.  I was also studying piano with Emilio del Rosario at the Music Center of the North Shore.  
He’s an amazing teacher.

The Music Center of the North Shore
, now called the Music Institute of Chicago, was established in 1931 in Winnetka.  It is the largest and oldest independent community music school in Illinois, and the first in the state to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.  Now headquartered in Evanston, it has six campuses.

Emilio del Rosario (1934-2010) a Filipino piano prodigy, who emigrated to the U.S., dedicated his life to the art of teaching and nurturing pianists to the highest standards.  He served on faculty at the Music Institute of Chicago for more than 40 years, from 1964-2007. A brilliant pianist and master pedagogue, del Rosario was the first student of the famed American pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher, thus becoming a part of a historic teaching tradition that stretches back through Artur Schnabel, Theodor Leschitizky, and Carl Czerny to Beethoven.  He shared his knowledge and passion for music through an extraordinary performing career across two continents, and a teaching career that shaped the lives of hundreds of music students.  In 1986 and 1992 he received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the National Foundation for the Arts. While many teachers of del Rosario's caliber chose to work only with older, established students, he preferred to discover and nurture young students, and became nationally renowned for developing young talent.  He explained in 1988 that he was "most gratified by finding music in a child and then developing it beyond the child's wildest dreams. I not only love what I do, I love my students as well. They are like my children, and I am one of the luckiest people around."

[(Mostly) from the Music Center of the North Shore website]  

pann BD:   A number of years ago all composers were somewhat straight jacketed.  If you’re going to be a composer, you had to write in a certain style.

Pann:   That’s right.

BD:   Now, in this new Millennium, it’s really gotten to the point where you can write in any style you want.  Does this give you freedom, or does it just make you crazy trying to figure it out?

Pann:   It’s interesting.  You can write anything.  I always remember a quote of my first teacher, Sam Adler.  He said,
You can write anything now.  You can write a symphony, and you can go on stage and stand on your head and spit chicklets, and there’s your Symphony No 1!  [Both laugh]  I always think of that because you can take it as a very freeing experience.  But I firmly believe that you have to impose a certain amount of parameters on yourself.  That frees you up, actually.

BD:   You must have come to a certain style.  Did you come to the style, or did the style come to you, and impose itself?

Pann:   [He thinks]  If I am writing in a particular style, I don’t think I’m in a particular style right now.  I’m still too young, and I don’t think I ever want to get to where I’m must be making cakes basically from a mold.  From all the music I’ve grown up listening to, I can remember the first piece of
classical that I heard.  What I’m really drawn to in pop music.  You take all that, and you process it.  I have a filter up in the brain, and what you hear, the kind of sounds influence the way things are put together.  I’ll listen to a Sibelius symphony, and he puts things together in an incredibly radical manner.  You can’t believe that it works, and I just admire that completely.  It makes me want to achieve something, not like Sibelius’s symphonies, but something with that kind of sophistication.  It’s something that I’m really working towards now, at this point after I’ve been out of school almost two years.  I remember how influenced I was in school by some of the professors there.  You always idolize them when you’re young, and I idolized a couple of guys very much.  One was Chris Rouse.  He writes music that I just clung to.  That was when I was at Eastman, and later William Bolcom.

BD:   Those are both well-known names, and justifiably so.

Pann:   Yes, their music really, really struck a chord with me.  It’s very attractive to me.

BD:   Do you want to become a well-known name?

Pann:   [Laughs]  At this point, I would like to just be able to keep doing what I’m doing, and do it even more, and to a greater degree, and on a grander scale.

BD:   [With mock shock]  You’ve written a piano concerto!  That’s not grand enough???

Pann:   [Laughs again]  That’s probably the only piano piece I’ve written that I can play.  How many performance opportunities do you get for a piece like that?  [CD recording of this work is shown below]  To become a big-name composer, it’s funny...  I have friends and people that I know, as well as people I’ve gone through school with who are following in the footsteps of their mentors, or established composers.  But if I concentrated on that, I would be sacrificing a lot of freedom.

BD:   Is the music that you write for everyone?

Pann:   I would say it is certainly not for every staunch academic type.  I know from playing my music for people who are writing in that angular style.  They just won’t enjoy it, and do not tend to take to it.  My music is very melodic, driven by harmony.  We’re talking about functional harmony, not tri-chordal stuff.  As I said, by using keys, and writing key signatures, it’s traditional in that respect.  It’s using tools that have been around since the beginning of writing a western music.

BD:   But I assume you’re not writing it that way just to please the public.  I trust you’re writing it that way because that’s what you have to write.

Pann:   Right, I’m not writing to bring in a mass amount of people.  However, the common man can listen to it and get it.  It’s not so much that, but I hope the music that I’m writing at this point brings joy to people.  It brings joy to me to write it, and the music I choose to listen to
, that’s not mine, brings joy to me.  That is a sentiment I have actually become very in touch with recentlyI’m talking about the last five yearsthat infuses into my music.  I’ve gotten vehement reactions against it from people who cannot abide going back to using tools like melody, and harmony, and keys.  They feel it is too regressive, or retrograde.  But yes, I do hope my music reaches a somewhat large audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve done a little bit of teaching.  What advice do you have for composers who are even younger than yourself who are coming along?

Pann:   Back in 1995, I was teaching ear training at Michigan
at 8:30 in the morning, when people dribble in, and take down chords and dictation.  But I had an epiphany in composition and composingthat basically that I could do whatever I wanted.  It’s all right to write your music.  So, the best advice I can give is that it’s all right to write music that your teacher of the time does not like.  It’s okay.

pann BD:   But you have to like it?

Pann:   Yes, you have to like it.  That’s even better advice!  [Laughs]  Thank you for that.  Yes, that’s the best advice, actually
you have to write music that you like.  When you’re really young, sometimes it’s difficult because you don’t know what you really aspire to like in music.  You can like the Brahms Second Symphony, or the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and think that’s the greatest thing in the world.  Obviously, to write it is another thing.  It is difficult to write something on that grand a scale.  You have to wait it out, and be true to yourself, true to what you decide to listen to, and what you decide to try to write at that point.  When you’re eighteen or nineteen years old in college, you’re thrown into a whole new world.

BD:   Basically, then, I assume you’re just learning technique?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Michael Torke.]

Pann:   Yes, that’s what the teachers would try to teach you.  You’re learning compositional technique.  Sam Adler would say to write ten melodies.  That was the first lesson, to write ten melodies.  You had a week and then came back.  It was an off-color assignment I thought, to write ten melodies.  I was thinking we were going to write a chamber piece, or something like that, or a piece in the style of some great composer.  That’s a great assignment, to learn rudiments.

BD:   He was getting you to put down your ideas, and not work with them?  Just put down the ideas?

Pann:   Yes, and I can see now, from a teacher’s standpoint, with a class of ten or twelve freshmen just out of high school, from wherever they came, for someone like him who can see, and who has so much experience behind him, that lets him know what he’s dealing with.  He has ten original melodies right there.  That’s like ten fingerprint stamps he can use to decide how he’s going to teach a particular student.  But yes, you really put it well
you have to write what you like.  I’ve known people who have written for other reasons, and it only goes so far.  They might be writing for certain competitions.  There are a lot of competitions where there are many opportunities.  Composers think that there are no opportunities, and they’re stuck in a room with a dripping faucet, but there are so many opportunities.  Obviously, Kurt Masur [Music Director of the New York Philharmonic] is not walking the streets of New York looking for the next Beethoven, even though he might be the guy who is sitting there writing music.

BD:   [Laughs]  Rather, I’m afraid they’re beating down his door.

Pann:   Yes, they’re beating down his door, exactly.  But there are institutions though
like the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonicthat basically are not there for composers of today.  They’re there to play, for the most part, the tradition repertoire.  When the Chicago Symphony does Orbital Beacons by Augusta Read Thomas, who is their composer-in-residence, that’s a rarity.

BD:   [Gently, but sternly]  It
s not as rare as you think.  We have composers coming in many of the weeks of the season.

Pann:   Yes, John Adams will come in and conduct.  He’s an extremely powerful composer/conductor now.

BD:   But we’ve got a whole laundry list of composers... several each season coming in with either a brand new piece, or an old piece of theirs.  They’ll come in and talk about it, and play it, and that keeps the Symphony healthy.

Pann:   Yes, it does.  It keeps the program vital with the new music that they do.  What I’m thinking of are the opportunities that a young composer gets.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are most of the things you write works that you just have to get out, or are they on commission?

Pann:   At this point, most of the things I write are not on commission.  I’ve written on commission.  I’ve just finished a string quartet for the Ying Quartet on commission [CD shown above], but that’s rare for me.  Writing on commission, where you’ll get paid when you deliver the piece, is rare for me.  It’s something that I would cherish getting more of, something I’d shoot for, such as the opportunity to write an orchestral work.  I’m really, really hoping to write a symphony, and trying to get an orchestra interested.  This will get your name out there, or let you become visible for a commission, which is a lot of work.  I can’t tell you how much time I spend on self-promotion.  But when I’m not socializing, I’m writing.  I can’t tell you how many letters I write.  I have a CD burner that is going to have to be replaced very soon.  I’m wearing it out.  I don’t need a secretary now, but if I was doing twice or three times as much of that kind of work, I would be paying a secretary to do it.  But I can’t foresee when it will ever come to that.  If I want to write this big piece, I’m just going to have to do it.

pann BD:   Where do you want to be ten or twenty or thirty years from now?

Pann:   I would like to be doing a lot more of what I’m doing.  I’ve actually got a fantasy to write for film.  If I could write one or two film scores, I would just love the opportunity.  I’ve written some commercials...

BD:   Jingles???

Pann:   I wouldn’t call them jingles, but they are commercials for local hospitals in Chicago.

BD:   Oh, so it’s the music that underscores the message.

Pann:   Music that underscores, yes.  There is one for the Chicago Center for Advanced Medicine.

BD:   So it’s a one-minute film?

Pann:   Yes, a one-minute film, exactly.  They’re shorts, thirty-second and one-minute spots, for TV and radio commercials.

BD:   But that’s good.  It forces you to get your ideas organized.

Pann:   It does, and very quickly.  You have to get it down.  Most of the time you don’t even write it down.  I go in and play the stuff on their synthesizers.  Later, you bring people in to record what you want.  It’s that process in a movie that would be on a much grander scale which I would cherish.

BD:   Do you like the spontaneity of having to produce it immediately?

Pann:   Yes, but more of what I like are good film scores.  A great film score, with a good film, can be s powerful experience.

BD:   Are your ideas always there when you want them?

Pann:   No, they’re not.  That’s an interesting thing...  When they’re not there, you try to do things to make them come to you.  You try to do thing so that they are there, and for me if I’m alone, I will hop on the piano and play through Chopin Ballades!  Obviously, I’m not going to take anything from Chopin, but it gets the mind working, and gets me working compositionally.  I’m very hands-on at the keyboard.  This is just the way it is.  I don’t have perfect pitch.  I have good relative-pitch, but I’m not the kind of person who can open a score and hear it.  I can approximate it, but I can’t hear it.  So I hop on the piano, play around a bit, and really go off and improvise.

BD:   When you’re writing, are you ever surprised by what it sounds like when other people get a hold of your little dots and dashes on the page?

Pann:   Yes.  That’s a whole lesson right there.  About five or ten years ago, I used to write scores that were rather bare.  They didn’t have many indications on them.  They were almost like the Tovey edition of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.  They really have very little on them.  My teacher would say to me that I needed to write some words on the page.  I didn’t know what he was saying back then, but I know it now.  I’ve almost become most incessantly controlling with the music, and it is very tonal, functional music.

BD:   [Speculating]  A few years from now they’ll say you need to pull back a little bit.

Pann:   [Laughs]  Right.  I’ll probably just pull back  anyway, because I can only write my favorite tempo so many times.

BD:   Do you want the piece to sound exactly the way you want it, or do you want the performer to put a little bit of himself or herself into it?

Pann:   That’s the most special thing
when you’ve got a performer who’s confident enough to put himself or herself into a piece.  When it happens, if you’ve indicated something in a score, or if the music tells a performer that he or she can take liberty at that point and shape it, that’s a wonderful thing.  That creates a very musical performance.  The piece is very musical if it asks for that.  On this recording of the Piano Concerto, the pianist, Barry Snyder, does just that.  He does that with everything he plays, and because he does it so well, I couldn’t ask for more.  The cadenza on this piano concerto is a solo piano piece, and he takes it and just goes.  It’s a schmaltzy piece, like cocktail musical almost.  It’s very smoky, and he takes it all the way.  He comes from the traditional repertoire, and yet he can cross that bridge so easily, and just play around with new techniques with a lot of new repertoire.  When a piece is asking a performer to put himself or herself into it, and interpret it, that’s the very special thing.

BD:   I take it you’re pleased with this CD?

Pann:   Yes, I’m pleased.  We’re hoping to record another in the early winter, and if all goes well, it won’t come out too much later than that... although it can always drag on.  The release of a CD can take years.  I am also hoping Richard Stoltzman will do my clarinet concerto called Rags to Richard.  He did the premiere in New York in Carnegie Hall.  It was written for him and for the New York Youth Symphony.  That was a young-composer opportunity from a competition.  Stoltzman was involved in getting it to go through.  He’s like a ‘Hollywood Star’ amongst them, and can do anything he wants.  It’s wonderful.  I can’t say enough about him.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Pann:   Very pleased, and looking forward to the next fifty years.

BD:   Good.  Thank you for spending this time with me today.

Pann:   Thanks for having me.




© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 16, 2000.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in December of that year, and on WNUR in 2009, 2010, and 2016.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.